Archive for December, 2005

Best tech, policy, and idea blogs of 2005

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

Only one of each, according to me, highly subjective:

Technology: Danny Ayers’ Raw provides one stop for very well done semantic web (and nearby) news and analysis, written at a level perfect for me. He also has a knack for posting about obscure (to me) topics I’ve wondered about recently, or will soon, most recently about accounting for whether something is known.

Policy: Ronnie Horesh doesn’t post all that often and his Social Policy Bonds Blog is mostly about one topic. Regardless of what you think of his proposed implementation, Horesh’s mantra, that policies should be subordinated to outcomes, is so simple, obvious, and rarely followed, that it needs to be heard around the world. Here’s to a great new year.

Ideas: Brad Templeton posts (mostly good) Brad Ideas. Many are moderately ambitious, few are crazy. Executives with more ambition than imagination (especially airline executives), please read Templeton’s blog. The most recent Brad Idea, that crash avoidance technology could be financially justified by lower insurance rates, is less concrete than most.

Sorry, no recommendations for celebrity gossip, sex, photo, conspiracy, spam/seo/marketing, or war blogs.

Outsourcing charity … to Wikipedia

Friday, December 30th, 2005

Giving and asking for recommendations for worthy charitable donations seems to be popular this time of year, so I’ll do both, following my earlier unsolicited financial advice.

Excepting the very laws of nature (see arch anarchy), aging and its resulting suffering and death is the greatest oppressor of humanity. As far as I know Aubrey de Grey‘s Methuselah Mouse Prize/Foundation is the only organization making a direct assault on aging, so I advise giving generously. Fight Aging! is the place to watch for new anti-aging philanthropy.

The most important human-on-human oppression to end, in the U.S. at least, is the drug war (which directly causes oppression in other jurisdictions as well). I’ve only mentioned this in passing here. There’s too much to say. The Drug Reform Coordination Network is saying some of it. The seems to be spearheading state level liberalization initiatives. See MPP’s 2006 plan. I met MPP founder Rob Kampia a year or so ago and was left with a good impression of the organization.

is the current exemplar of the anti-authoritarian age and I love their .

Finally, you could help pay my salary at Creative Commons, more in these letters.

I’d really prefer to give entirely outside the U.S. and other wealthy jurisdictions. However, I’m not interested in any organization that gives direct aid (reactionary, low long term impact), supports education (feel good, low long term impact), exhibits economic neanderthalism, has religious or social conservative ties, or is a shill for U.S. foreign policy in the areas of drugs, terror, or intellectual property. I am looking for organizations that support autonomous liberalization or any of the goals exemplified by the organizations I already support above. Suggestions?

I suppose supporting prizes is one means of donating without respect to jurisdiction. In cases were low cost is important, researchers in cheap areas will tend to win.

I’d also prefer to give via some innovative mechanism. We’ll see what the new year brings.

Wikipedia chief considers taking ads (via Boing Boing) says that at current traffic levels, Wikipedia could generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year by running ads. There are strong objections to running ads from the community, but that is a staggering number for a tiny nonprofit, an annual amount that would be surpassed only by the wealthiest foundations. It could fund a staggering Wikimedia Foundation bureaucracy, or it could fund additional free knowledge projects. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has asked what will be free. Would an annual hundred million dollar budget increase the odds of those predictions? One way to find out before actually trying.

Of course I expect all of my donations to have imperceptible impact, almost as imperceptible as voting. But it’s all about expression. I’ve increased my expressive value by including a donor comment — “in loving memory of Άναξιμένης” — with my Wikipedia donation. I got an expressive boost when my comment was chosen for highlighting.

( was a pupil or contemporary of and has a cooler sounding name. As a kid I’d dedicate donations to Alexander the Great, but I now know better.)

Down and Out with the Macxs

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

I expected to enjoy by and have a really hard time finishing by . The former includes cool stuff like , , and . The latter is set in an incredibly challenging environment (in terms of holding my interest)–a . I experienced the reverse.

Manfred Macx, an open source entrepreneur of the future (very approximately), has a kid with his IRS agent luddite wife. They and their descendents carry their family squabbles across the universe and singularity. As this incredibly non-interesting story unfolds, Accelerando takes every opportunity to reference , , and obscure political cliches and inside jokes, without any real depth.

Accelerando was originally written as ten stories, many of which won awards, and several of which I can imagine being enjoyable as shorts. The book is way too long.

If you can put up with lots of enjoy science fiction, you’ll probably like Accelerando. Everyone else, skim the to pick up any missing memes. Peter McCluskey has a better Accelerando review.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is short and concerns the fate of a theme park ride rather than the fate of the universe. Theme park rides are run by . The only way for an ad hoc to take over a ride is to have such an obviously better plan for it that nobody resists–but not everyone wants to play by the rules.

Much is left unexplained (e.g, how does cleaning bathrooms immediately boost one’s ?), but the core ideas Doctorow explores infect every page, making the book the most thought provoking treatise on Disney theme park rides ever.

What would an economy driven by open source concepts and (post-capitalist but not necessarily post-market?) look like? This is a concern of both books. Neither has concrete answers, but Down and Out does a fair job of toying with the question, cat-like, in its limited domain.

Both authors are trying primitive versions of these ideas in the real world, having released Accelerando and Down and Out under licenses. You can download the books here and here. I commend both authors for this and for even attempting to write human stories about such abstract and interesting topics.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

‘s essay 1491 in the March 2002 Atlantic was one of the most fascinating magazine articles I’ve read. It posited a human an natural world in the Americas prior to 1492 very unlike the one taught in history classes–large, organized human populations that thoroughly shaped their environments–and it seemed the scant evidence pointed to this world.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus expands on the essay and is a good read, apart from a few personal anecdotes and one painfully silly page on Inca economics. Some of the major points:

  • Humans probably 30,000 years ago, not 12,000 years ago.
  • The first complex culture in the Americas, in present-day Peru, was contemporary with ancient civilizations in the old world (beginning 3000BC).
  • Pre-1492 ecologies, including the Amazon rainforest, were engineered by humans, mostly through fire, irrigation, and planting of fruit and nut bearing trees.
  • Pre-1492 human populations were large and well organized, and not just in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Amazonia and fertile parts of the present day U.S. were heavily populated and organized. The earliest accounts by Europeans agree with this.
  • Perhaps 80 percent of the new world population died of old world diseases in the century after 1492, almost entirely without direct contact with old world humans. may have declined by 20 percent in the first 200 years.
  • New world populations were vulnerable to old world diseases and not vice versa because there weren’t many new world species suitable for domesticaion (and thus the passing of disease between humans and animals) and very little diversity in genes impacting the immune system.
  • The Spanish conquest of the and empires would have been impossible had both not been ravaged by immediately before conquest.
  • The survived with food taken from villages emptied by disease shortly before.
  • The overgrown forests, massive bison herds and pigeon flocks and similar encountered by later arriving old world descendants did not exist prior to the die off of native human populations and resulting disintegration of their socities. in particular seem to have been rare pre-contact (their bones are rare in refuse that contains bones of many types of birds eaten). The flocks of billions were an outbreak population enabled by human death or other ecological disruption resulting from contact.
  • farming did not exist pre-contact–it only becomes practical with steel axes. Clearing with stone axes would take many months, for land that can only be cultivated a few years. With steel axes, clearing can be accomplished in a week. Farmers in Amazonia instead created that could be farmed continuously through a “slash-and-char” process.
  • Present day primitive state of peoples such as the may not be ancient at all. The tree-based agriculture of Amazonia would have enabled them to abandon their farms for a short time at no permanent loss–and they would have had plenty of reason to flee from disease and Spanish slaving–but after a generation or so, especially with high mortality, their agricultural knowledge would have been lost.

Apart from Norte Chico, which appears to have only been recognized in the last decade, none of these revelations are truly new. They have been hotly debated by archeologists for many decades, with the consensus slowly coming around to support the scenario above, at least that’s what I get from reading Mann’s description of the debates.

I have changed my mind about one thing, mostly as a result of reading this book and some further reading on the topic. I used to think the Aztecs and Incas basically “had it coming” as they were super-seriously, super-outrageously, and super-bizarrely deranged by bloodthirsty religions (as opposed to the merely serious, outrangeous, and bizarre derangement of the bloodthirsty subjects of the ) that left them unable to cope with anomalous events. The pre-conquest civiliations may not have been more bloody than their contemporaries in Europe in terms of numbers killed. The appearance of pale skinned men on horses with guns is no anomaly compared to smallpox. I suspect old world civilization would have convulsed had disease worked the other way–the impact was greater than that of the .

An interesting and demystifying paper on the Aztec legal system.

I am both amazed that essentially a whole separate set of cultures and line of history existed and saddened that it is almost completely lost.

That famous passage from Adam Smith’s (1759):

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Smith’s hypothetical was merely off by an ocean.

Darkfox

Tuesday, December 27th, 2005

I hate to write about software that could be vaporware, but AllPeers (via Asa Dotzler) looks like a seriously interesting darknet/media sharing/BitTorrent/and more Firefox extension.

It’s sad, but simply sending a file between computers with no shared authority nor intermediary (e.g, web or ftp server) is still a hassle. IM transfers often fail in my experience, traditional filesharing programs are too heavyweight and are configured to connect to and share with any available host, and previous attempts at clients (e.g., ) were not production quality. Merely solving this problem would make AllPeers very cool.

Assuming AllPeers proves a useful mechanism for sharing media, perhaps it could also become a lightnet bridge– as a Firefox extension.

Do check out AllPeers CTO Matthew Gertner’s musings on the AllPeers blog. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but his is a very well informed and well written take on open source, open content, browser development and business models.

Songbird Media Player looks to be another compelling application built on the (though run as a separate program rather than as a Firefox extension), to be released real soon now. 2006 should be another banner year for Firefox and Mozilla technology generally.

Lucas Gonze’s original lightnet post is now near the top of results for ‘lightnet’ on Google, Yahoo!, and MSN, and related followups fill up much of the next few dozen results, having displaced most of the new age and lighting sites that use the same term.

Persistent Flow

Monday, December 26th, 2005

Two pop psychology posts caught my eye recently. Adam Rifkin, quoting a pop business article:

[P]eople performing at a high level — in sports, the arts, and other endeavors — attain Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow state”: Time slows down, concentration comes effortlessly, distraction melts away.

Via Chris Rasch, a Psychology Today article claiming that persistence is more important than talent:

[E]xperts often speak of the “10-year rule” — that it takes at least a decade of hard work or practice to become highly successful in most endeavors, from managing a hardware store to writing sitcoms — and the ability to persist in the face of obstacles is almost always an essential ingredient in major achievements.

These observations strike me as true and complementary, though my intuition about such things comes mostly from a visceral feeling that I’m not getting on with the program.

The only brief time I’ve felt was during creation of Meta e-zine (including selling ads), but the persistent bit was not set. In other matters I’ve been fairly persistent, but at a pathetically high level of distraction (just one example).

Also from the Psychology Today article:

[P]ersistence is vital even for an indisputable genius. Mozart’s diaries, for example, contain an oft-cited passage in which the composer reports that an entire symphony appeared, supposedly intact, in his head. “But no one ever quotes the next paragraph, where he talks about how he refined the work for months,” notes Jonathan Plucker, an educational psychologist at Indiana University.

This reminds me of another pet peeve that I’ve been meaning to write about: invention is not innovation and innovation is more important than invention. For now, see Techdirt’s many posts on this theme, e.g., The Difference Between Innovation And Invention.

Ramit Sethi’s post The Myth of the Great Idea sort of hits on all of these, um, ideas.

God bless this jurisdiction

Sunday, December 25th, 2005

One of my favorite words of late is , used instead of , , or .

This occurs to me because Creative Commons has had to use jurisdiction rather than country, as the former is more neutral, important to some in cases where distinct legal systems exist within one nation state (e.g., and ) or where nation states do not recognize each other as such .

It happens that this use is a good fit for my anti-nationalist agenda. A country or nation is easily anthromorphized as the or , personified in the form of a ‘great’ leader, thought worthy of cultish loyalty and sacrifice, blessed by a diety, and nearly always constitutes a geographic monopoly.

‘Jurisdiction’ by contrast sounds functional, neutral, even neutered. Jurisdictions often overlap. A jurisdiction is something to be arbitraged, a country is something to live, die and kill for. An individual to a jurisdiction is as an employee to an employer, an individual to a nation is as a serf to a lord.

Smash the state, call it a jurisdiction.

The Anti-Authoritarian Age

Saturday, December 24th, 2005

In a compelling post Chris Anderson claims that people are unconfortable with distributed systems “[b]ecause these systems operate on the alien logic of probabilistic statistics, which sacrifices perfection at the microscale for optimization at the macroscale.”

I suspect one could make an even stronger claim closer to people’s actual thoughts, which aren’t about probability: people crave authority, and any system that doesn’t claim authority is suspect.

The most extreme example does not involve the web, blogs, wikipedia, markets, or democracy, all of which Anderson mentions. Science is the extreme example, and its dual, religion.

Science disclaims authority and certain knowledge. Even scientific “laws” are subject to continued investigation, criticism, and revision. Religions claim certain knowledge with no evidence, only assertions of authority, and count billions as believers.

Distributed systems sacrifice claims of perfection for optimization at the macroscale.

What wikipedia really needs is the pope to declare certain articles .

On the subject of response to the ongoing rounds of wikipedia criticism, this otherwise excellent post from Rob Kaye is pretty typical:

The Wikipedians will carry on their work and in another 5 years time it will be better than encyclopedia britannica — its only a matter of time.

For me this time is measured in negative years. I loved paper encyclopedias as a kid (but was always skeptical of their content–very incomplete at best). I haven’t looked at one in years. I use wikipedia every day.

Not having access to a paper encyclopedia means I have more shelf space to work with. Not having access to wikipedia would be a severe annoyance. In another 5 years time it would be a severe disability.

Addendum 20051225: I forgot to mention another example of ready acceptance of bogus authority versus rejection of uncertain discovery: the WMD excuse for invading Iraq versus the horror at an .

Gymnast Worship

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

Last night for my partner’s birthday we saw ‘s . It struck me as a costumed gymastics exhibition, not a . That’s a good thing in my book, as my stereotype of circuses is not good–pure cheese. I was impressed by the performances, even moreso that they were done without injury. For some reason I found the jugglers’ take on playing catch particularly entertaining–with many objects in the air between performers at once. Maybe because it was about the only performance I could personally attempt, fail miserably at, and not become a quadriplegic in the process.

The musical accompaniment was tolerable, but I couldn’t help imagining from the start what the people who did or similar might do given such a troupe–add fire, cacophony, remove stage and seating. It would be great fun, but probably injurious.

Are you more irresponsible than a teenager?

Saturday, December 17th, 2005

Bryan Caplan:

[T]here is a strong case that people who fail to save for their own retirement are much more irresponsible than teenage single moms.

How so? You can become a teenage single mom just by yielding to impulse once. And once you have a child, it takes two decades of hard work to make up for your youthful indiscretion. I won’t say “It could happen to anyone,” but there are a lot of responsible adults out there who are lucky that their risky teen-age behavior didn’t happen to mess up their lives.

In contrast, no one fails to save for his retirement because of a few minutes of teen-age passion. To fail to save for your retirement, you need to make the wrong decision week after week, year after year. If you’re too immature to save for your retirement in your twenties, you have a second chance in your thirties, a third chance in your forties, and so on. In short, to fail to save for your retirement, you have to be consistently irresponsible for decades.

I love the counterpoint, though it’s a bit overstated–parenthood is the result of moments of passion and months of failure to abort the parasite. Still, months pale next to decades.

Apparently sixty percent of adults in the U.S. have no retirement account nor other investment holdings. Some of them may have generous pensions coming or own homes without mortgages, but that still leaves a substantial proportion of adults as woefully irresponsible.

So set up and max out that tax advantaged retirement account (, and similar in the U.S.), before new year resolution and tax times roll around.

I occasionally hear people tout the tax advantages of paying mortgage interest, and then reasons why the advantage is easily overstated (only deductions above the standard personal deduction help, it’s spaving), but never that if paying mortgage interest means you can’t afford to max out other tax advantaged investments, the “advantage” is at best a wash. But I haven’t listened to such conversations very closely.

Thanks to Nihcole for the CNN ‘savings gap’ link.